The Louisiana Outdoor Writers 72nd Annual Conference was held August 11th and 12th this past weekend in beautiful, historic Natchitoches, La. Thanks to family willing to step in and take care of things at home for me, I was able to attend both days and participate in the bass fishing trip.
Early Friday morning found me on a boat with Gary Rispone of “Paradise Louisiana” TV show and retired Col. Bruce Wilson, our fishing guide for the day. We launched at Grand Ecore and fished the Red River and the Clarence Oxbow. I grew up very near the Red River, but had never fished it before. The scenery was gorgeous, and the company was fantastic! Conditions for “catching” were off that day, but we still had a fun time in good company. I got to do the opening for Gary’s TV segment, plus he taught me how to use his video camera. So, I loved all that, of course!
And as I promised in the previous story, after the fishing trip I went a few blocks from Chateau St. Denis over to All Tangled Up to get my hat-hair repaired. It was right on Front St. in a long row of Spanish-influenced buildings with wrought-iron balconies–a picturesque setting. I walked in . . . and there she was.
She was every bit as pretty as Truvy in the movie, she had a sweet southern voice, and huge southern hospitality. After I told her I had an appointment, I told her about my blog story and that she was indeed my Truvy. She said, “Oh, yes! I play Truvy every Halloween, but my name is Tracee!” Hey, close enough! And y’all–she’s the owner of the shop. Isn’t this just crazy fun? I had to beg her to let me take this photo, and she refused to smile, but I think I captured the essence of Tracee-Truvy of All Tangled Up!
Friday night while attending the welcome social held at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, I met the Director of Communications for the Cane River Heritage Area. I took the opportunity to share my story with her about having known Susan many years ago, and she told me about a memorial park in her honor. With nothing but the knowledge that it was on the corner of Cypress and “something”, I headed out with camera in hand early Saturday morning before the group field trip to the USFWS fish hatchery.
Cypress St. was easy enough to find, but at the corner of Cypress and Pine, I turned right into a dead end–the most interesting looking dead end I’ve ever encountered. There I sat facing a tall iron marquee that read “American Cemetery”, and to the left was a gorgeous plantation-style home. It all seemed too intimate, too cozy for me to just drive up in there. I wasn’t sure where to go, and while I was about to back out (because there was no place to turn around), along walked a little grey-haired woman, headed toward the dead end.
I rolled down my window and told her I was looking for the Susan Harling Memorial. She said it was on the corner right behind me and that I could pull in and park beside the house. I asked her if that was a private home. She said, “Oh, no, it’s a bed and breakfast and I’m the hired slave!” Turns out, she is the caretaker for the Samuel Guy House, which is a fantastic story for another post. So, I parked beside the fabulous plantation home and walked back a half block to the park at the corner.
A peaceful fountain forms the centerpiece of the park, with benches placed around for silent meditation. There amidst the red brick walkway stands a beautiful memorial plaque with color photos and a short bio of Susan’s life written by her brother Robert Harling, the playwright.
I took photos for you and will transcribe the bio here so that you can share in knowing the real woman behind the play and movie Steel Magnolias. I hope you enjoy getting to know her a little better and in so doing, can make a deeper connection with the film.
The film, shot entirely on location in Natchitoches in the summer of 1988, celebrates the strength and indomitable spirit of Southern women. It chronicles the lives of Susan Harling, her mother Margaret Harling and the community of witty, strong and loving women that supported them through good times and bad. When Susan learned she was a diabetic at age twelve, one of the first things she said was that her illness was “not going to get in the way of anything.” True to her word, she never let it slow her down. She was a candy striper at Natchitoches Parish Hospital. She sang in the First Presbyterian Church choir. She directed the Youth Choir. At Natchitoches Central High, Susan was very involved in extra-curricular activities. She played flute in the high school band. She was a majorette. And, like Shelby, the character based on her and portrayed by Julia Roberts in STEEL MAGNOLIAS – she twirled her batons to the music of Hawaii Five-O.
Even as a young child, Susan’s career goal was to follow in her mother Margaret’s footsteps and become a nurse. After graduating from Natchitoches High, she entered Northwestern State University and immersed herself in campus life. She was a proud of the Kappa Iota chapter of Phi Mu. the warmth and support of that sisterhood remained important to her throughout her life. Upon her graduation from the NSU School of Nursing, Susan became a pediatric nurse and resided in Shreveport. She loved being around “all those babies” and dreamed of one day having a big noisy house full of kids.
In Shreveport, Susan met and fell in love with a pediatrician, Patrick Robinson. They married in 1979. Susan had been cautioned about the complications of having children, given her severe diabetes. But she never let her disease inhibit or alter her life in any way. She was determined to have the family she’d always dream of. In February, 1983, Susan and Patrick had a son, Robert. It was a difficult birth with her son arriving three months premature, but clearly baby Robert had inherited his Mama’s strength and indomitable spirit. He pulled through.
Unfortunately for Susan, the pregnancy had taken a toll on her kidneys. They failed. Determined to resume her career in the neo-natal field and continue to be the best mother possible, a kidney transplant was necessary. Showing a strength and love equal to Susan’s determination for a normal life, Susan’s mother Margaret donated one of her kidneys. There were tough days. But even in the darkest moments, Susan would take time to marvel at the kindness and compassion of the community that surrounded her. And then she would always make everyone laugh. Laughter was very important to her.
Sadly, the transplant didn’t work. Complications ensued. Susan passed away in October of 1985. Susan treasured the pride of heritage and the beauty one finds in her beloved Natchitoches. It would make her very happy to know you are experiencing it now. The rich history of this town is filled with amazing women noted for their strength, courage, and purpose. The dedication of this park to Susan Harling Robinson adds another name to that illustrious list. She would be so pleased if those visiting this tranquil spot would take a moment to think of those neighbors, friends, and family who love and support and inspire you.” Robert Harling
I took my few minutes to do just that, and I hope she was pleased. Being there was just “one of those moments” that transcends words. I’m very glad I found out about the park and had a chance to visit.
Below are a few close-up photos from the plaque.
Please click on the images to see larger version and to read the original captions.
I feel very fortunate to have been able to make this trip to Natchitoches; to experience the Red River, the bluffs, Susan’s Memorial, and more that I will share with you later.
Until the next post, I remain your BW.